From prize-winner to pariah - the degeneration of regeneration
There are already different ways to think about Peckham Library. A week or two ago there was the Stirling Prize way - the assessors called it 'the centrepiece of Peckham's spirited efforts at regeneration', a place to which 'the young people of Peckham flock every day', 'a building to make you smile', and more in a similar vein. Then there was the appearance of this same Peckham Library in last weekend's newspaper accounts of the death of one of those same 'young people of Peckham', whose journey home after a visit to the library ended in his murder at the hands of other young people of Peckham armed with knives.
The contrast between these two associations when viewing the building is extreme but supportable. Of course, nothing about the designer, the design of the building, or its construction has anything to do with the murder - except its geographical location and its use by the victim.
But in the sense of the branding of Peckham that is enough. From now on, instead of being known (as it briefly may have been), as the place with a library that makes you smile, Peckham is back to being the dangerous place that you would do well to keep clear of after dark, especially if you are only 10 years old.
The prizes awarded to so-called 'regeneration' schemes are always hostages to fortune, though not always in such tragic ways. Yet this never appears to dampen the enthusiasm of architectural boosters for making wild claims on their behalf.
Perhaps the most outrageous example in recent years has been Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, which is supposed to have converted the Spanish city from a crumbling industrial rust belt into a thriving tourist mecca. In fact, it is losing population and remains better known for the activities of ETA guerrillas than those of the international art market, in the same way as Hiroshima and Nagasaki will always be associated with the first atomic bombs.
How places are known cannot really be transformed by any single building, unless that building has no context, like Taliesin West, or Arcosanti. All permanent buildings are as inert as trees, the victims of chance and the events that surround them.
Even the greatest of all 'branding' buildings, the Sydney Opera House, were it to burn down, would make its parent city doubly famous as 'Sydney! The place where the opera house burned down. '
These morbid speculations may not be entirely irrelevant to the current interest in establishing objective criteria for design quality begun with the Egan report and now being actively pursued by the Construction Industry Council.
According to reports, the object of their exercise will be to: 'Address the cultural/social (sic), aspects of aesthetics, its appropriateness to community, its utility value and technical performance, economy and sustainability. ' Put in this way it not only sounds like a tall order but one that flirts with discredit when it comes to the bits about 'cultural/social aspects of aesthetics' and 'appropriateness to community'.
The associations of buildings change over time - think of Paul McCartney's house - and so do their uses, owners and functions.
At the same time neighbourhoods and neighbours change, leaving behind them structures that belong to earlier periods, like derelict churches.
My guess is that the more extensive the claims made by architectural promoters for the social, or regenerative effect of new buildings upon their surrounding communities, the more likely those buildings are to develop in the course of time some corrective association or reveal some glaring defect. It is important to remember that the Broadwater Farm estate once won awards. As Le Corbusier philosophically remarked when his utopian houses at Pessac were being de-utopianised by their occupants: 'Life's right, the architect's wrong. '